Sunday, February 26, 2006

Pusillanimous

When I was in high-school, one of my classmates received some feedback on an assignment from our English teacher to the effect that he should use fewer large words in his writing. He was astounded. All of his efforts to construct sophisticated, erudite sentences with which to impress the teacher had not been recognised. Worse, his advanced vocabulary seemed to have had the opposite effect, it had attracted negative criticism. Of course, me and others were outraged on our classmate’s behalf. Surely the point of an English assignment was to employ the extent of one’s vocabulary? At the time, the criticism seemed ridiculous, purposefully designed to discourage our learning. Now that I have marked assignments myself, I can finally appreciate what the teacher had been trying to say, the good writing practice that she had been trying to instil in her students, the level-headed encouragement, which in fact was much more her way. I have read essays, where it is clear that the student is intelligent and has done good research, but their expression is congested or ungainly. Congested in the sense that too many ideas are crammed into each sentence, and ungainly in the way a new foal has legs but hasn’t worked out how to use them.

When I’ve read students’ essays, I’ve never had much hesitation in determining what is congested or ungainly. It’s only when I’m reading writing that has been published after going through a rigorous editorial process that I feel far less certain about categorically stating a negative opinion. I suppose much of the certainty I have about my reading of students’ essays arises from the conviction that I’m a more advanced reader and writer than my students, an assumption, I concede, that might not always be true. Another key indicator of an essay I would describe as ‘bad’ is one that I simply can’t comprehend because it doesn’t comply at all with any known rules of English grammar. When I read writing that is not self-published, I suppose I assume that it must be ‘good’ writing according to some credible measure.

The question of what prompts anyone to declare writing either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a constant one for me. Most recently I have thought about this issue when reading the blog, Intersecting Lines. Its authors are very clear about what writing they like and that which they dislike. In their judgement of literature reviewers and critics, Clive James is a good writer, and Peter Craven is not. The contributors to Intersecting Lines reveal no doubts about the truth of their individual viewpoints, which seem to concur. I am not sure whether to admire such certainty, but I am definitely perplexed by it. I wonder how they arrive at their judgements. Do they ever question, within themselves, the criteria on which they premise their conclusions?

One criterion that seems to lead to a dismissal of any writer by Intersecting Lines is word choice, specifically the choice of long words when, in the blog writers’ estimation, a shorter one will do. A recent posting on Peter Craven especially prompted my thinking on the matter of word choice. Here’s an excerpt:

Now the first thing about Peter Craven (that's me) that you (the reader) are going to have to remember is that I'm really smart. Like, phenomenally smart. I'm so smart that whole cities have to be evacuated when I have a thought, because of the movement of my stupendously large brain-cells. This means that from time to time, I throw in a few big words into my review. It's obvious, really: big words for big thoughts. So here's how my review starts.

"Taken as a whole, Peter Craven's work is truly, astonishingly, omnipotently pure."


Part of my thought process was a reflection on one of my own posts about a recent column by Peter Craven on the subject of television drama. Regular readers may recall that I didn’t agree with Craven’s views, but I couldn’t argue with his command of the English language, in fact I enjoyed it. I share the authors of Intersecting Lines view that Peter Craven’s reviews have a superior tone, and since I wrote my Honour’s thesis on Australian ‘grunge’ literature, I’m all too aware of his propensity to dismiss writers and their novels out of hand, according to some Weekly Bulletin-esque sensibility, but I wonder if the problems of his tone and his opinions are reducible to using big words.

Another memory, this time from primary school. Mr E, who had a lump on his leg that was later surgically removed, came and sat at the desk next to mine during a period when each member of the class was working individually. He engaged me in conversation while at the same time he read from a dictionary. I asked him about the dictionary and he said he often read it, randomly, hoping to discover new words. My ten-year old mind was impressed with the idea and I decided, then and there, it was a habit I would also practice. It was in this way that I found ‘pusillanimous’, a word that was impressively big and able to be used as a kind of code word; a word you could use confidently amongst your closest friends to the bewilderment of others. But, how to use it in a sentence? Perhaps, ‘The pusillanimous critic’s opinions were held in little regard.’? Or would it be less elite, and therefore better, to write, ‘The craven critic’s opinions were not shared by many others.’? Or better still, since it’s alliterative, ‘The lily-livered critic’s opinions were readily lampooned.’?

‘Pusillanimous’ is a word that represents to me the constant struggle I wage between the delight in discovery and knowledge and wanting to share that with others, and the need to temper my ego that revels like a glutton in showing off how clever I am. While reading How to Get a PhD, I’ve discovered that I’m a serialist writer, rather than an holistic writer. While the holistic writer, plans the big picture, the serialist revels in the details, unable to move on until each sentence is deemed perfect. I don’t think it’s the most efficient way to write, but it means that I derive great pleasure from searching for the perfect word. The perfect word is not always a big word, but sometimes it is. I have never used ‘pusillanimous’ in a sentence, written or spoken (before today), but I once read it used to good effect in a column by Phillip Adams—surely on something about one of the current government’s policies. I still hold that it might be useful to me one day. I might use it to achieve just the right tone to describe a writer’s work; the sound of it could resonate perfectly with its meaning when the future sentence I write is read aloud. Is there any reason why an advanced vocabulary, handled well, should not be employed by a reviewer of literature or any other writer, who can assume his or her readers have a highly developed vocabulary or at least handy access to a dictionary? Is she not allowed to use the language of her craft when communicating with her peers, just as any other profession must?

Perhaps my questioning of the contributions to Intersecting Lines arises from the fear that my writing may be subject to the same criticism, the same ready dismissal. I think there is truth in that. It would just be awful after working so hard at the difficult task of writing to have that work so—it seems—thoughtlessly discarded, without being afforded due respect for the effort expended. It’s not that I am terribly sorry for Peter Craven, because he is so often guilty of the same thing, even with his eloquent prose, but I do feel for the multitude of other writers that apparently do not make the Intersecting Lines grade either. I am not sure what it takes to make the grade. Even James Joyce is not up to scratch.

I don’t know. I just feel uncomfortable when I read Intersecting Lines.

9 comments:

dogpossum said...

I remember your response to my ex years ago, when he told me off for thinking too much: "No, no! Don't ever say that! I don't think we can ever think too much!"... or words to that effect.
I remember it changed the way I thought about comments like that. Instead of 'taking it', as I would have at school when bullied for, well, thinking at all, I now remember your saying that and take pride in my capacity for thought.

Isn't it strange the way, despite ourselves and all our rational politics, we still, irrationally, succumb to that sort of anti-brain bullying?

No word is too big.
At our house both The Squeeze and Crinks use big words seemingly at random, whether they know what they mean or not. It's almost as excellent as marking essays where the author has let spellcheck do its work, resulting in the wrong word in the most excellent context.
Crinks argues that she might as well just keep trying these words til she gets them right - or else how will she ever expand her vocabulary? I applaud the sentiment, mostly because I love things like words-out-of-context and mixed metaphors. It also makes me stop and think about whether or not I actually know the meaning of a particular word.
Sometimes errors in language are more fun than words correctly used.
And sometimes sentences are too convoluted for their own good. :D

Galaxy said...

Yeah, I do think the whole 'big words' argument as a point on which to criticise someone's writing needs to be put to rest. Sometimes I just want to scream, 'get a dictionary'! I suppose I feel the same way when people dismiss books because they don't get them. I understand if a book doesn't jive with your world view, but to make the leap to the book being at fault and the author being self-important smacks of the worst kind of undergraduate thinking. It's so much easier to say something is boring or stupid than to admit it's overwhelming. I know I've had the experience where I've attempted to read books and abandoned them, but then come back a few years later, only to feel that now I'm grown up enough to 'get' them.

The other issue that I think needs addressing is one of basic respect. There needs to be more of it in reviewing and writing of all kinds. If I learnt anything through my Master's I am happy that I learnt how to criticise someone's work while still acknowledging that aspects of it were useful because it helped progress the field. Actually that's something I remember dogpossum talking about once, and I was mightily impressed by it. It changed how I approach reading and writing about other people's work in a positive way. The best compliment of all was when my supervisor said how 'perfectly measured' my criticism was of a particular writer on my topic, with whom I disagreed.

And, yes, I have also derived great pleasure from malapropisms in student assignments. Have I told you my favourite before? The one where Jane from Tarzan exhumed sexuality? : D

dogpossum said...

i think i feel the need to exhume some sexuality right now... no, wait, i'm mistaken.

with all this talk of respecting word choice in other's writing, are you saying it was wrong of me to start a discussion on the Selective Use of Spellcheck with a tutorial with the comment: "i'm not saying you have to doublecheck spellcheck's selections. in fact, i think i'd rather you didn't i haven't laughed as much marking as i did this weekend. thankyou, students" ? was that wrong? i tell you, though, the number of un-checked spellcheck selections (!!) dropped dramatically in the next round of assessment.

is it also wrong for Dave to have taught me the word 'chundergrads'? is it wrong for me to find that term so funny?

am i a bad tutor? should i feel more guilt? ... no WAY! learning is totally FUN!!

Galaxy said...

I know you don't like Kath and Kim, but that's how I think of those unchecked spellcheck errors. I tell students they provide me with Kath and Kim moments. 'I want to be effluent, Mum.' 'You are effluent, Kimmy, you are.' Hysterical. I think the spellcheck might used a lot when Jane Turner and Gina Reilly are writing. Maybe we should keep our amusement to ourselves to make marking more fun. See what I'll be missing out on this semester. Chundergrads. Heh. It's funny, but it's wrong ; )

TimT said...

Interesting thoughts, and an interesting point to pick up on - the 'big words' criticism. Thanks for the response!

I don't know if we do agree with one another all the time, but we certainly seem to agree on a lot of books. I suspect that we'd probably have some disagreements over other issues (politics, for instance). So the discussions might become more interesting if we stopped analysing the stylistic and formal aspects of books, and started becoming more engaged with their arguments and rhetoric and their content.

Regarding Peter Craven - what can I say?? He annoys me. I think it's fair enough targeting satire at him: he is employed by both the Fairfax and the Murdoch papers in what seems to be an ongoing (and doubtlessly high-paid) position as reviewer; he is published regularly in both papers; he appears in a semi-regular basis on the ABC ... and, as far as I can see, he says nothing worthwhile. His observations on literature and the arts seem to be bland and unoriginal. In particular, his articles annoy me - partly because he sounds like he's just trying to be smart, and partly because I never see any real evidence that he actually engages with literature. I can't recall him ever quoting at length from another author and saying, yes, I like this about him/her, or no, I don't like the way he/she says this.
In the absence of this, his writing seems to be wholly descriptive - so that we have to put our trust wholly in him, as a reviewer; we don't have to read the books ourselves.
In fact, I've probably derived more understanding of literature from Tim Blair than Peter Craven.
Also, I don't particularly like his work, stylistically, anyway. There doesn't seem to be anything there, stylistically; he is not a brilliant wit, his articles don't seem to have a clear structure; they're just long and tedious. I very rarely read them through to the end, because it seems to me that there's nothing substantive to get hold of.

Regarding big words - well ...

GOOD: Big words are fun!

BAD: Big words can be a needlessly complicated way of expressing a simple concept.

GOOD: Sometimes, even when they are not the 'simplest' way of saying something, they are stylistically or structurally appropriate. (For instance, to complete a rhyme at the end of a line of poetry)

BAD: Sometimes a big word can be used to disguise a lack of understanding.

I think Craven is guilty of the last charge.

PS I was in a play once where I used the word "pusillanimous". It's the only line I remember from it, but it was a good one. The character - who is in the middle of a long whinge about the state of society, or something like that - walks over to the bookshelf and grabs a dictionary, remarking that one of the other characters is pusillanimous. Then he opens up the dictionary, and reads this out:

PUSILLANIMOUS:
Weak, cowardly, timid of mind. PUSILLANIMOUS!


Then he slams the dictionary shut, and flings it across the room.

Which, I suppose, might prove my point and your point at the same time ...

TimT said...

Phew. What a long comment!

Long comments - they're only marginally more acceptable than long words, in my book ...

Galaxy said...

Heh. Well I will admit I was slightly nervous about whether any of you would happen upon my post and take offence. I wondered if it would have been better etiquette to post a comment to your blog (I'm sure this is the case). At any rate, thanks for your considered response which clarifies, for me, your objections to Peter Craven the cultural phenomenon. I do look forward to reading more of your posts.

It must have been great to say the 'pusillanimous' line. The flinging of the dictionary would have been such a satisfactory punctuation mark.

Fling... Swoosh... Crash!

TimT said...

Well, I don't think the response would have been as considered if it was in comments form; comments tend to lend themselves more to point by point argument. It's great to get feedback, no matter in what form it appears.

It was great, but my favourite part was slamming the book shut. You had to make sure to get a large and strong but not unwieldy book with a hard cover, so that it made a loud, resonant 'clapping' noise when it went shut; and you had to slide your hands up the cover from the spine to the edge, otherwise it was impossible to get sufficient speed to make such a noise.

You know, some actors get paid to do that sort of thing ...

JPW said...

As for me, I just don't like much of anything. My express reasons disliking a particular author or piece of writing cannot properly be conveyed, just as my dislike for coriander and 4WDs cannot be conveyed. I just don't like them, and instead of struggling intellectually to understand my dislike, I am generally satisfied with it, and I focus my energies elsewhere - time spent on examining my hatred of something is time ill-spent, when there is so little of it afforded to us all. I am better off concentrating on those few things I do enjoy, and hopefully, in the process, broadening my tastes to other things. Does this make me a prejudiced bigot? Most certainly. Does being a prejudiced bigot keep me awake nights? Not at all.